THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2017)

December 12-Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges, 4th Viewing)

To find out if Sturges can take off from noir the way the rest of his career took off from John Ford’s movies with Will Rogers. With each viewing,  I feel him inching closer, the way Rex Harrison keeps getting closer to having off his wife’s head–or his own–just because she’s so lovely in every way.

December 12-Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath, 3rd Viewing)

Because I’ve been wondering if Gwyneth Paltrow’s star-making performance–distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s company either just before or just after he tried to molest her (I haven’t been able to get the timeline straight even in the context of assuming everybody who is now on the record remembers everything just the way it was)–holds up.

It does.

And everything good around it, which is just about everything, is still good.

I watched it the first time as a rental. That was right after I saw Paltrow interviewed on Charlie Rose. Surrounded by snakes she was. Jane Austen must have seemed like a godsend. Any Jane Austen. But especially Emma, who is loved and valued to exactly the extent she keeps her mean streak cloaked under velvet manners. I think this might become a favorite.

December 13-Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron, 2nd Viewing)

To see if I missed anything the first time around. I don’t think so. This is a good, solid little noir which has gained enough of a reputation to merit a Criterion release. I’ll probably watch it again–it might make a great early sixties New York double bill with The Apartment.  But my old problem will always arise: outside Patricia Highsmith, I’m just not that interested in psychopaths. Not even the ones who are trying to convince me they want to go straight.

December 14-Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rossen, 1st Viewing)

I’m treating this as a first viewing even though it might be a second…and the first may not have been that long ago. I’m too tired to look it up, but if this is a second viewing, I might have revisited it to see if Richard Burton can get past that blonde wig.

There’s something a bit off about the whole exercise and that no-doubt-period-accurate wig (I can’t conceive another reason to make Richard Burton, of all people, look like Little Lord Fauntleroy) exemplifies the picture’s stagnant, occasionally ornery nature. The history’s not bad. The sets are often magnificent and there are individual scenes that work well.

Still, it’s missing something.

It’s too bad Land of the Pharaohs, released the previous year, wasn’t a hit. Joan Collins might have spiced this right up.

December 14-Body Double (1984, Brian DePalma, 1st Viewing)

Because I saw it for a buck in a local thrift shop and I was in the mood for some DePalma I hadn’t seen.

I won’t be in the mood for this again anytime soon. I’d rather have my chest drilled, like one of DePalma’s victims. That shot above is the best thing in the movie. One could be fooled by it into thinking this might be worth two hours of your time.

Don’t be fooled.

December 17-Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow, 3rd Viewing)

For the action scenes, which just keep coming. They’re among the best in modern cinema and have proved to be Kathryn Bigelow’s real calling card even as she’s moved on to Oscar bait high concept stuff.

And for Patrick Swayze’s performance as a sociopath with enough real charisma to make you understand why a fellow danger jockey like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah might fall for him even after the mask has come all the way off.

Plus a bunch of real life surfers who give you a tantalizing look into a culture that’s a long way from Dick Dale or Endless Summer.

Besides, there’s not really a higher concept than surfing bank robbers.

December 18-Cheyenne Autumn (1964, John Ford, Not Quite Umpteenth Viewing)

I guess I’ve seen this about half-a-dozen times now. For me and a Ford film, that’s just getting started.

It’s an odd, late entry in the Ford canon. Like a lot of his less-than-great films it divides people, sometimes bitterly.

I’m not in the “hidden masterpiece” camp, but I keep coming back to it.

Every time, I think it won’t work: That Richard Widmark not being John Wayne and Carroll Baker not being Vera Miles and Mike Mazurki not being Victor McLaglen and baby-faced Sal Mineo not making much of an Indian is just too much working against it even before the flat ending.

But, every time, I see so many good things in it–the long opening sequence, as fine as anything Ford ever did, the haunting shot of Karl Malden’s decent-but-blustering fort commander contemplating the carnage wrought by his own incompetence before he wanders into the snow, Mazurki’s “Cossack” scene, where he turns out to be pretty damn close to Victor McLaglen after all–I know I’ll always come back.

Late Ford, old Ford, sick Ford, conflicted Ford. It’s still Ford.

December 20-Black Rain (1984, Ridley Scott, 4th Viewing)

Because there aren’t enough Kate Capshaw movies, not even ones where she’s underutilized. And because, come to think of it, there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play a good guy, even if he’s a good guy with some more than rough edges…meaning there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play scenes no other actor of his generation could play so well and which happen over and over here.

And because only Ridley Scott could make modern Tokyo look and feel like an underworld.

If not the Underworld.

December 20-Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson, 1st Viewing)

Because it’s showing at the mall and it’s that time again. (More, perhaps, in next month’s At the Multiplex. For the record, after a close run during the first hour, I enjoyed it.)

December 21-The Man Who Never Was (1956, Ronald Neame, 3rd Viewing)

Because better a just-going-to-seed Gloria Grahame (already…by 1956!) playing an almost good girl with a broken heart than no Gloria Grahame at all.

And for a lovely ending, of which the modern world, where we can dream anything we like, did not turn out to be worthy.

Great poster, though.

Til next time….

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE OUGHTS

As I feared, slim pickings (which get worse in the teens). These fillms are fine, but except for 2001 and 2006, none of these would have been real contenders eve in the nineties, which was much weaker than the three decades preceding.

I don’t think this Decline of Civilization thing is all in my head. If I ever start to doubt myself, I’ll just go back and read the long lists of titles of the films released since 2000. It’s not conducive to any pretty pictures, either on-screen or in my head.

But I’m soldiering on as there are still some worthwhile films and we must do what we must do…Civilization won’t be resuscitated by failing to finish what we start!

2000 Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute) (over Proof of Life…speaking of fallen civilizations, don’t watch this movie unless you’re prepared to witness a completely gratuitous and hyper-realistic scalping scene…the compensation is stellar work from Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman plus Chris Rock justifying his fame)

2001 Me Without You (Sandra Goldbacher) (nothing close…and no shame on the year, which can’t be said for some other years in this decade)

2002 Ripley’s Game (Liliana Cavani) (over The Good Girl…not quite as good as The Talented Mr. Ripley from the previous decade, but further proof that Miss Highsmith’s terrifying age as arrived and a career defining role for John Malkovich even if he’s about as far from the Ripley Highsmith imagined as it’s possible to get without bringing spacemen into it.)

2003 Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton) (fun movie, but you know things are going south when something like this stands alone)

2004 The Incredibles (Brad Bird) (and ditto)

2005 Walk the Line (James Mangold) (over Proof…and I’ll say this much, it’s been an excellent century for musical biopics and small blonde actresses)

2006 Infamous (Douglas McGrath) (over The Break-Up…an unlikely step up from the previous year’s more celebrated and excellent-in-its-own-right Capote…with Toby Jones narrowly besting Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock, earning the Oscar they later gave for some hokey nonsense or other, ever-so-quietly laying Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee in the shade)

2007 The Brave One (Neil Jordan) (over Zodiac and Michael Clayton, which isn’t saying much)

2008 Appaloosa (Ed Harris) (over Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which might be saying even less…good western which, in the fifties, would have been one of a thousand)

2009  My One and Only (Richard Loncraine) (fun road trip movie, loosely based on George Hamilton’s childhood, with a rare turn by Renee Zellweger–who also lit up Appaloosa–as a style of southern belle who has rarely been portrayed as accurately or sensitively….over The Hurt Locker and Up…if Up had been released as a short, consisting of its first fifteen minutes, it would have quadrupled the national suicide rate and been the film of the new millennium…which still wouldn’t have deserved it)

MISTER TIBBS AND THE END OF THE JTP (Monthly Book Report: January, 2017)

Last month’s reading was all crime all the time. I finally got around to reading a couple of John Ball novels that have been sitting around the house for a couple of decades (he was the creator of Virgil Tibbs of Sidney Poitier/In the Heat of the Night fame) and I finished the Josephine Tey Project.

 

 

The Cool Cottontail (John Ball, 1966)

Ball’s basic concept was a black cop, Virgil Tibbs, raised in the South, who lives and works in California. When the first Tibbs’ novel, In the Heat of the Night (1965), was made into a famous film, his home police force was changed to Philadelphia. No idea why.

It’s plain from The Cool Cottontail, however, why Ball preferred Tibbs to be a Californian. The main appeal of this novel (and presumably the series) was the character study of a black man adapting to the cultural changes of the Civil Rights era in a liberal, reasonably tolerant place. Not sure Philadelphia would have qualified. Cali certainly did. The plot here opens with an appropriate bang when a body is dumped into the swimming pool of a local nudist colony.

I’ve already forgotten who dumped the body, or whether it was even the same person who put the bullet in it, and Ball’s style is board-flat. But the picture of Tibbs’ cautious optimism and realistic view of the pace with which real change, if any, was likely to occur–of how far even the inhabitants of a nudist colony were likely to stretch the last boundaries of tribalism for the sake of anything other than celebrating their own boundless tolerance–remains indelible. To wit:

Tibbs wanted to explain that this was an official call, not a social one. He opened his mouth to do so and then had sense enough to close it again. These people knew that, but they were treating him as a guest anyway. He was a person just like them, welcome to go anywhere and do anything that anyone else might do. It was like walking through the gates into Paradise. 

He looked down at his ebony hands and hated them.

When there’s enough of that, you can get by with a mundane plot.

Then Came Violence (John Ball, 1980)

This was the last of the Tibbs’ series, published at the end of the New Deal coalition that had made a series of mainstream black detective novels either possible or necessary to begin with. It’s not a long drop from The Cool Cottontail. Ball’s style remained durable to the point of blandness. The basic plot again revolves around a sensational idea (Tibbs has to pretend to be the husband of a beleaguered African president’s wife).

But the main appeal of the series’ original concept–a black cop dealing soberly and rationally with sweeping social change–had lost its punch. There are still some telling asides, especially regarding Tibbs’ contempt for the black criminal class (by then hopelessly intertwined with the chic-est radicals). But, by now, it’s a story that could be told about anyone.

Worse, there’s a love story, predictable at every turn. Well, except for the part where the African president’s wife gets kidnapped–not by her husband’s political enemies (who could have perhaps been tied to one of the remnants of the radical movements then in their final state of collapse? was this too hard to manage?) but by two-bit hoods who have no idea who she is. When you are relying on coincidences that thin, you need a lot else going on to make any novel, let alone a thriller, sprint to the finish line. This one dawdles–to the starting gate, the finish line and every place in between. These books were important and Tibbs is a likeable man to spend time with. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it. But this one didn’t leave me with any burning desire to pursue the series further.

The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey, 1951)

Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in a hospital. Bored, he homes in on a portrait of Richard III brought in, with a series of others, for his amusement.

He starts asking his visitors and the hospital staff what they think of the portrait and studying their reactions when they think it’s an ordinary man versus when they are told it’s Richard.

Then he and a young scholar who is a friend of the actress who supplied Grant with the original portrait start discussing whether or not Richard might have been a victim of bad press from the likes of Thomas More and Shakespeare.

Eventually they decide this is the case and are a bit surprised to find that, every century or so since Richard’s death, someone else has come to the same conclusion.

That’s it. No bodies, no crime, no suspense. After the first few pages (where we meet the staff) not even any pithy characterizations. On top of that, it’s written in a stodgy, documentary style that had me considering toothpicks for my eyelids. Grant calls Thomas More “sainted” so many times I ended up liking More better than Grant. Which would be fine except the book is clearly not meant as a parody.

For reasons that baffled me on a second read even more than a first, this novel (from the woman who wrote Miss Pym Disposes for Christ’s sake) was voted “number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association” (Wikipedia) and fourth on a similar list by the Mystery Writers of America. Several of Tey’s other novels (all fine and worthy) made those lists as well. For a woman who published only eight crime novels, to have half of them honored on such lists is remarkable and a measure of her worth.

Why her greatest novel, one of the finest in the English language made neither list, while this dead thing rides high, is a mystery far beyond any relegated to mere fiction.

The Singing Sands (Josephine Tey, 1953)

Mercifully, since this was Tey’s last novel (it was published after her death, at the age of 55, in 1952), this is a return to form. Grant is back on his feet, but suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown which leaves him frightened of closed spaces, boredom, and, most crucially, himself.

There’s a mystery, a classic nothing-that-gradually-turns-into-something very much in the grand Tey style. Again, it’s civilization, as much as any act of fate, that rides to the rescue.

The Tey of a few years earlier, right after the war, might have made the solution to the mystery be to Grant’s cost, rather than his salvation. But, since that would have been the end of him as a fictional character anyway, and she had no way of knowing she would die before she could resume his journey, it’s understandable that she would want to hold on to her meal ticket. And there’s one final flourish as a psychopath, who both does and does not escape Grant’s wrath, gives a glimpse into the places Tey had gone in order to blaze trails for the entire generation of “psychological” crime writers, Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar chief among them, who would follow. Here the killer describes the aftermath of a murder he committed on a train, which Grant, salvaged by his pursuit of a whim, is only able to really prove was not an accident by the receipt of the letter he is reading:

I removed the contents of his pockets and substituted Charles Martin’s pocket-book and its contents.

He was still alive, but he stopped breathing as we were running through the yards at Rugby.

Tey’s impulse, like Grant’s, was always toward the preservation of the social and political order.

But, somehow, I do not think she was quite able to convince herself, in 1952, that there would always be an England.

JUST YOUR GARDEN VARIETY SOCIOPATH….YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? REBECCA DE MORNAY IN THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #87)

The most common criticism, then and now, of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the concluding film of Curtis Hanson’s great “modern malaise” trilogy (picking up where The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence left off), is its “implausibility.” That criticism isn’t unfounded–yes, it’s highly implausible, especially the set-up–just misguided.

What’s more implausible than modernity? And what’s more real than the stuff you couldn’t possibly make up?

In a world where identities are exchanged on an increasingly ad hoc basis, often with dizzying speed (some colleges now ban “he/him” and “she/her” from their orientation material as too constricting–might hurt someone’s feelings), why would a woman who blames another woman for the deaths of her husband and unborn baby not try to take that woman’s husband and children away from her?

I write a lot about artists maintaining their relevance to the future by sensing the air. I also mention from time to time that pop artists–singers and pulp genre story-tellers in particular–tend to be better at this than the highbrows who aim to last the ages.

So call Hanson high-pulp if you want, but let’s not forget he had a real genius for this stuff. This movie doesn’t work as well as it does a quarter-century later because the old stranger-in-the-house script is done with more panache than usual (it is, but that’s just box office mojo–this was his breakout hit and no doubt the reason his next two films, The River Wild and L.A. Confidential, both steps backward, featured massive budgets, big name casts, and not much else beyond competence and his unerring eye for composition). It works so well because Hanson’s feel for the disquiet lying under the placid surface of modern suburbia puts tension in every scene until the standard letdown of a box-office mandated denouement. Put another way, it works so well because, up until that moment, he and his excellent cast have spent more time evoking Patricia Highsmith than Alfred Hitchcock.

Nothing’s ladled on then. It’s all as banal and meticulous as you would expect in a horror thriller set in the safest, freest place humanity has ever provided for itself–not just America, but Seattle! The early “happy family” scenes drip with real malevolence, which only intensifies when Rebecca De Mornay’s character shows up as a woman wearing a mask that won’t peel off.

It’s only the happy ending that keeps this from being a masterpiece.

The key to the rest is that De Mornay–nobody’s idea of a great actress, though, having been on a mini-marathon of her films lately, I’m beginning to wonder why–pulls off the miracle of making her psychopath both interesting and plausible. (This latter despite the script letting her down on occasion. Not even Hanson could resist that inevitable scene, here played in a greenhouse bathroom of all places, where the psycho goes off alone and smashes things just to remind us of who they really are. That scene’s more jarring than usual here, because, for once, it isn’t even necessary for the slow people.) She’s cat quick, cat smooth, and cat vicious. When she twists a little boy’s arm or torments a mentally challenged handyman or murders a woman who’s caught on to her game of nanny’s-come-to-take-over, you can see how she might get away with it…if this weren’t a Hollywood movie.

And it’s that element that remains unsettling, no matter how many plot twists you see coming.

Everybody else is just doing what they’re supposed to do. Kind of like “real” life. It’s De Mornay, no doubt helped by Hanson’s considerable gift for mood, who gets under the skin of the plot. You know she isn’t going to make it out of the final scene because it ‘s a movie and movies are, by and large, there to comfort us. That was as true in 1992 as a hundred years ago or now. But against all that is the sense that we can all thank God this is only a movie and not, say, a Patricia Highsmith novel or life in this world where we’re really only as free as we are safe, and how free is that when your worst nightmare is only a trip to the gynecologist away?

Compare this movie to any week’s headlines and you might be reminded just how easily the skins of our safe, free worlds can not only be penetrated, but ripped away.

Because in those worlds that aren’t protected by Hollywood money (and despite the sense of sin I noted being all over Hanson’s Bad Influence in an earlier post being muted here, never allowed to breathe in a single image or stray bit of dialogue that might give the devil’s presence away) De Mornay’s Peyton Flanders–an invention of her “Mrs. Mott”–would rule a lot more than the cradle.

She might even make you like it.

Especially if, instead of running about swinging a shovel at everybody’s head, she decided to just sit quietly and keep reminding you how much of it was your own idea.

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SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

Okay, I might have to go back to monthly reports. Suddenly I have time to read again…Meanwhile, a quarter’s worth of grab-bag:

Breakheart Pass (Alistair MacLean–1974)

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By the seventies, MacLean was transferring his well-honed thriller formula to more and more exotic settings with (according to a consensus of those who plowed through his later novels at least) less and less success. This “western” version is a pretty good one, though. It’s not The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare by any means, but it moves along crisply and builds some real tension and surprise along the way. What you’d expect from an expert romanticist who was tired but not yet quite worn out.

A Game For the Living (Patricia Highsmith–1958)

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A bit of a tease–rather like A Tremor of Forgery, the only other Highsmith I’ve read that lacked a distinctly American flavor. Even the Ripley novels, with their European settings, feel like a coming to terms with Highsmith’s homeland but here, the flavor and setting are strictly Mexico.

Still, she knew the place well, and, if you read a line like this, early on…

“Theodore did not want to get into a discussion of the Catholic versus the Protestant conscience or, what was worse, the Catholic conscience versus Ramon’s idea of ‘Existentialist’s conscience,’ which was no conscience at all to Ramon. Just because he did not torture himself, as Ramon did, for having an affair out of wedlock!”

…you might expect a narrative where souls are at stake, if not lives. But it turns out she doesn’t drum up much interest in either. Maybe she needed America and Americans more than she thought.

Anyway the novel is best when it’s searching for the soul of its setting.

“The police arrived, two ordinary policeman in uniform, and in a somewhat bored manner went over the house and listed the items Theodore said were missing and their value. Theodore knew he would never see them again. One almost never saw stolen things again in Mexico, and the POLICIA accepted robberies–little house robberies like this–with a resigned shrug. It was no doubt their conviction that people with so much money ought to be robbed now and then, that it did no harm and did the poor possibly some good. And Theodore, too, felt rather the same way.”

The POLICIA do, of course, investigate a little further than Theodore expects, but only because a murder is involved. As with all her novels, nothing much happens. Even murder feels ordinary. Unlike most of her novels, in this one, the nothingness behind the central murder never quite materializes into that moment of existential dread which was her specialty. What you do get a philosophy of life, which I suspect is pretty close to the author’s own unique combination of not-quite-nihilism and not-quite-not-nihilism:

“If the earth became a hunk of metal, or disintegrated and vanished in particles too small for scientists’ eyes or even their microscopes to find, wasn’t there some beauty in that, beauty in the idea, if nothing else? It seemed quite as beautiful as three billion sweating or freezing human beings creeping around on a globe.”

Highsmith’s basic idea was that murder lay in the hearts of practically everyone–perhaps more deeply in the hearts of the mundane spirits than in anyone else. Since neither of her main characters here ever seems remotely capable of murder and since no one else is developed enough for the reader to have an interest, the dread never comes.

The Dark Lady is always interesting and I always approach her with extra care, but this time she didn’t leave a mark.

Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas (Matthew Greenwald–2002)

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First let me say (and I doubt this was the author’s fault), that this is the most incompetently produced book I’ve ever seen from a reputedly professional publisher. Spelling errors, grammatical glitches and/or malapropisms abound on nearly every page.

That being said, you should still read it if you have any interest in the group or their times. It’s not like there’s a really serious study out there and hearing this basic history in the words of the people who made it is fascinating…not least because you know you can’t trust a single one of them as far as you can throw one of those mountains you can supposedly see from the ocean California is supposed to slide into some day.

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Sharyn McCrumb–1990)

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The first McCrumb I’ve read. The mystery/thriller part is standard enough, but the book is immensely valuable for its quietly effective and realistic depiction of small-town America in general and Appalachia in particular, a people and region who are rarely well-served by either fiction or life. On nearly every page you can find a little gem like this:

“Jeff McCullough found out a lot of things just because people stopped him in the street and asked about them, thinking that the local newspaperman would know more about it than they did.”

That’s the life of a small town journalist in thirty-three words and McCrumb offers up a town full of the same.

Naturally, when it came time for somebody to use this general setting for one of those “realistic” television shows that give the intelligentsia such a thrill, they picked Elmore Leonard, who couldn’t tell it from Detroit or Miami, to set the agenda.

Of course they did.

Growing Up Patton (Benjamin Patton with Jennifer Scruby–2012)

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Multi-generational memoir from the grandson of the legendary WWII general and son of his highly successful namesake (also a general who served with distinction in Viet Nam). Benjamin Patton picked a different path and became a documentary filmmaker, a journey which led him to, among other things, develop a program where soldiers with PTSD (the kind his grandfather once famously slapped) document their experiences.

It’s not a “gotcha” memoir by any means, though. Rather the opposite. The grandson writes from a perspective of understanding what was valuable about his family’s military tradition and the enormous service both his father and grandfather rendered. Hence, along with stories of the many individuals they impacted, there are reams of good advice from both men, none of which is likely to be heeded by anyone conducting our present or future wars. Too bad. We’ll probably need to relearn the lessons they taught if we ever have to win one again. And we probably won’t.

For all that, the best anecdote, concerning the elder Patton, comes early on and confirms everything his admirers and critics ever dreamed or dreaded about him:

“Once when he was rehearsing his young daughter for a horse show, he berated her constantly, criticizing and cussing her, finding everything wrong, her posture, the way she handled her horse, her method of taking the jumps. He finally shouted in anger, ‘Get off that goddamn horse and let me show you how to do it.’ Meekly she climbed down, a chubby twelve-year-old, and he took her place. Resplendent and supremely self-confident in his horsemanship, he prepared to jump. As he spurred toward the obstacle, she was heard to say, ‘Dear God, please let that son of a bitch break his neck.'”

Such is love.

Garnethill (Denise Mina–1998)

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A highly praised, 400-page snigger at the expense of rape, incest and abuse victims. It’s dressed up as empathy of course, complete with an improbably off-the-cuff revenge fanstasy and wrapped in a whodunit plot so transparent even I (notoriously bad at the game) guessed who the baddie was. The edition I bought has, as an addenda, a featured interview with the author, who reveals that she loves Glasgow (her adopted home and the novel’s setting) for its poverty and crime. Keeps it real and all.

Let me say that, having just finished her novel, I was not surprised. She does have one moment of honesty at the end of the book when the wee adorable lassies she has so fervently wished us to love and cherish throughout turn out, not as surprisingly as I suspect Mina intended, to be what they would call “pricks.”

In Glasgow slang that’s now apparently the worst thing you can call a woman. Bet you won’t need three guesses to know the worst thing you can call a man. (Hint, it starts with a c.) Ha ha ha. If this really is modern Scotland, I’m glad my ancestors got out.

[NOTE: Besides all that, I finished a Kennedy assassination book which I’m planning to review for BWW shortly. And I’m still pondering how to handle Devin McKinney’s book on the Beatles but I’ll definitely address it further in one venue or the other…I’ll also probably do a separate post on Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, which I’m currently reading and is certainly worth some extra attention…Til then.]

 

JUNE BOOK REPORT (6/13–The Sixties…Refracted)

The Far Side of the Dollar (Ross MacDonald, 1964)

A re-read.

Mid-level MacDonald, which means as good or better than anybody else’s high level except Chandler’s or Highsmith’s, the only American “thriller” writers who rate a legitimate comparison.

I first read MacDonald’s oeuvre (much of it two or three times) in the eighties. I was a lot younger then and was mostly impressed by his coiled spring plotting, which isn’t matched by any writer I know of, irrespective of genre or level of stylistic acumen.

If anything, my respect for that element of his books has grown. I’m a long way past thinking “plot”–let alone true, complex narrative–is easy.

But these days, I’m even more impressed by the clarity and nuance of his vision.

There’s a tendency among the crit-illuminati to apply the word “noir” to virtually anything that involves crime and is the least bit ambiguous. I’ve seen it applied to MacDonald plenty of times.

But noir is fantasyland and a particular kind of fantasyland at that. MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels take place in a world which, if it isn’t quite real, isn’t quite unreal either. (I can speak with some authority on the matter because I partly grew up in a world–Central Florida in the sixties and early seventies or, more specifically, working class communities stuck between trailer parks in the literal shadow of NASA’s rockets–that left a very definite impression on my formative mind, an impression of being both real and unreal in ways that MacDonald’s books, set in Southern California around the same time, capture perfectly.)

Maybe it was because I read the final chapters of this particular book with Thunderclap Newman’s Hollywood Dream for background music (and never was there a more perfect soundtrack for any literary experience), but the weight of both the looming apocalypse and the more troubling seeds of long term erosion are present in MacDonald’s books to a greater degree than anything else I’ve encountered from that period or any other.

I never thought he was less than a fine writer and I’ve never taken any fine writer for granted. But working my way back through his books these days I’m becoming convinced that he achieved something rarer and better.

He wasn’t just good, he was right. (So good and so right that I can readily forgive him for being very, very wrong when he–or Archer anyway–once said rock and roll was “music for civilizations to decline by”…I’d say rock and roll was more like the last thread holding ours together, but, hey, we all make mistakes!)

Thunderclap Newman “Something In The Air” (Trippy period television performance!)

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me (Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor, 2007)

Boyd’s an accomplished woman in her own right. She was the era-equivalent of a super-model when she married the “quiet” Beatle in the mid-sixties (he soon made her quit), and, in the years since she finally detached herself from Harrison’s snake-in-the-grass buddy Eric Clapton in the late eighties, she became a gallery-worthy photographer.

In the space between–the years when she inspired most of the great music either man ever made and, thus, the reason so many folks bugged her for so long to write this memoir–she served as the principal muse and personal doormat for two dry-stick Englishmen who had been rescued from life’s humdrum by a bit of luck and their considerable talents.

Why and how she managed to draw heights from them they rarely, if ever, approached otherwise is surely a story worth telling.

Alas, one cannot find that story here.

Pattie seems to have been (and to still be) what used to be called a good egg. It’s her defining quality and one way to stay a good egg is to keep seeing the good in people who deserve less.

I can’t deny there are moments to behold here–an underlying narrative yearning to breathe free:

“While the Beatles were recording the White Album, George wrote a song called ‘Something,’ which he released as his first A-side single with the Beatles. He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful–and it turned out to be the most successful song he ever wrote, with more than a hundred and fifty cover versions. His favorite was one by James Brown….My favorite was the one by George Harrison, which he played to me in the kitchen at Kinfauns.”

That’s a genuinely lovely passage that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s general paint-by-numbers, as-told-to approach. It’s the entirety of what she has to say about inspiring one of the greatest love songs ever written (you can take Frank Sinatra’s word for it if you don’t care for mine) and by itself it could hardly be bettered.

But the same style of understatement is pretty much applied to her entire life. That might have been a refreshing approach if she had stuck to momentous occasions. But when so many anecdotes hinge upon some variation of “my self esteem had never been lower” or “we drank far too much” or “Barbados is such a lovely island” or “the view was breathtaking” or “we had no idea how much damage drugs could really do,” or “I should have left much sooner but I thought a woman was just supposed to put up with such things,”** the mind does go a bit numb and the eyes do develop a tendency to glaze.

Don’t get me wrong. Much as I wanted somebody to shake her by the collar and tell her to stop letting famous men wipe their feet on her, I had empathy for Boyd throughout. Mostly because her famous husbands frankly creeped me out:

“What I didn’t know [about Clapton’s sudden proprosal of marriage, several years after he had wooed her away from Harrison and long after he had established a pattern of treating her like dirt, begging her to take him back yet again, and writing a song about it] until Roger Forrester confessed a few days after the wedding was how the whole thing had come about. He and Eric had been playing an endless drunken game of pool at Roger’s house in Finley Green and they had had a bet. Roger had bet Eric that he could get his photograph in the newspapers the following morning. Eric bet him ten thousand pounds that he couldn’t. So Roger went straight to the telephone and told Nigel Dempster, then gossip columnist on the the Daily Mail, that Eric Clapton would be marrying Pattie Boyd on March 27 in Tucson, Arizona. By the time they woke up the next morning, the story, plus photograph, was emblazoned across the Daily Mail and the two went into a total panic. What to do? A few million people now knew about the wedding; the only person who didn’t know was the bride. Hence the hasty phone call–and the desperation for an immediate answer.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing, so, when I wasn’t nodding off, I found myself frequently wanting to drag the not-much-better George Harrison’s ghost back from Karma-land so I could give him a good reaming before I went off to punch Eric Clapton in the face.

But the reason this supremely cautious entry in the beleaguered annals of styleless, say-nothing prose exists is because its author was, with Michelle Phillips, one of the two great “muses” in the history of rock and roll.

And between reading it cover-to-cover and putting Layla and Other Love Songs–made in direct response to Boyd’s initial rebuff of an advance by Clapton that included a threat (subsequently carried out) to start shooting heroin if she didn’t relent and, to my mind, the only truly sustained greatness of his career–through the headphones one more time, I’m afraid I can really only recommend the latter.

Derek and the Dominoes “Anyday” (Studio Recording)

**Time presses and I don’t do this for money, so I didn’t go back and look up these “exact” quotes. Trust me, the redundtant sentiments are accurately captured even if the words are not.

 

THE DARK LADY PROVIDES SOME SERENDIPITY (Great Quotations)

Thanks to the Criterion Collection’s usual due diligence in pursuit of excellence, a high quality print of Purple Noon, Rene Clement’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is now available to folks like me. I liked the movie just fine and I’ll probably like it even better on future acquaintance now that I know before it starts just how far the ending strays from the source (haven’t been taken so far aback on that score since the first time I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

The French critic interviewed in the supplements says Clement was aiming closer to Dostoevsky than Highsmith and I’d say he got closer to Poe than either. To be fair, though, Ripley was as unfilmable as it got in 1960….But my how quickly things changed.

The highlight of the release by far (including the movie itself), is an interview with Highsmith, conducted (in French) for French television, circa 1971.

A few posts back I wrote about the dangers of what now might as well be called Tarantino-style amorality, a danger Highsmith–a writer with a fair claim on being the greatest crime novelist of the only century likely to produce any serious contenders for the honor–has been regularly accepted as having aided and abetted.

And, of course, that acceptance has always been intended as a supreme compliment.

So what did she have to say about it here?

Well, for one thing, this (in English translation):

PH: Since I always write about guilt, I often think my books are old-fashioned, because today no one worries about guilt.

This makes me kind of curious to know just how “old-fashioned” she felt by the time she died a quarter-century later…Curious enough that I now feel a much stronger need than previously to track down her biography on the chance it has something to say about this.

Meantime, there’s this other quote to chew on, which is more to the point of a few things I’ve been posting here lately regarding the triumph of critical “interpretation” over mere artistic intent (and how the temptation offered by such notions has been overwhelming reason for quite a long while).

PH: It’s easy to write about young men like Tom Ripley because it’s basically a joke. Honestly, crooks always win. It’s hard to catch crooks. [Note that she says “crooks” not “a crook”–big difference.]

Interviewer: In fact, he’s a very likable criminal.

PH (clearly bemused): “Likable” is an exaggeration. He can’t be likable if he kills his best friend.

Really? He can’t?…I love that the interviewer says “In fact,” which would, of course, make the rest of her statement undeniable, on the order of deciding what number comes after the equal sign if what’s in front says two plus two.

Then again, she could be right.

After all, what did good old-fashioned Patricia Highsmith really know about Tom Ripley?

All she did, poor thing, was invent him.

(NOTE: The whole thing will probably be up on YouTube in short order so those interested in hearing the interview but not able or willing to pay for the DVD might want to keep an eye out. Among other things, Highsmith professed that she preferred living in the country because people were more honest there, a statement that will doubtless have various members of the crit-illuminati making all kinds of excuses for her once word gets around….I can hear it now. “Well she always was a bit eccentric you know….”)

UPDATE: KayJay has kindly pointed out to me that those who have Hulu may be able to access the film at least Link here...Including a blurb that says Purple Noon is “less judgmental” than the modern version with Matt Damon. Goodness (SPOILER ALERT dead ahead). Purple Noon is so judgmental that Ripley gets caught! When his not getting caught is the whole point of Highsmith’s vision for the character–not just in the source novel but in the whole series. I assume this comment is from the school best descrbed as “the-French-are-so-much-more-inherently-sophisicated-than-us-they-must-always-have-the-superior-take”…and the superior take is the ‘nonjudgmental’ one, of course, even if the person being judged is a psychopathic murderer.

The modern version doesn’t go quite as far as Highsmith’s novel because it suggests (though it does not spell out) that Ripley might have a conscience hiding down there somewhere in the pit that passes for his soul. But it certainly isn’t as “judgmental” as Purple Noon (which actually needs Ripley to be caught so badly it finally makes him stupid–can’t get any further from the source than that). Don’t get me wrong. Clement’s film is excellent. It’s just deeply misleading to suggest it is less conventional than the version Hollywood made in the nineties when indeed the reverse is true.